mad in pursuit: letters from james & orpha, summer of '26

LETTERS from James & Orpha: contents

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Orpha is frustrated. She hasn't been able to gather her thoughts for a letter and she is sure that James is withholding his letters till he gets something proper from her. A theme: spontaneity seems to be something Orpha has been destined to try to help James achieve. Maybe in unguarded moments he told her that he loved her spontaneity and wished he were more so. At the same time, he has also expressed his disapproval of those he considers "emotionally undisciplined." At her most despairing, Orpha seems overwhelmed and discouraged by her emotionality. But when she stops to think about it, she realizes she doesn't want to be cold and self-possessed. It would be better if she could learn to harmonize her emotions like a well-played musical instrument.

Postmarked Thursday 7.9.26, from Orpha in Glens Falls NY

I shall have to give up my high hope of a regular correspondence with you. I am unable to do my part systematically, and I am convinced that you feel that it is not incumbent upon you to do as you promised. Since it appears that you willfully withhold your letters as a parent might a prize from a naughty child, I conclude that spontaneity does not yet rule your feeling nor action.

Since an explanation seems forced we'll go into the ugly details I had hoped would be unnecessary because of your faith, intuitive or otherwise, in my execution of the promise I made you.

My patience and endurance are tried — I have made it a rule to destroy my writings to you that seemed at all to be colored with self-pity, intolerance. If I am to continue to do so, I fear you would receive few letters, and I none at all. Last night, the end of the tether seemed near — I wrote you a plea — too emotionally undisciplined to meet with anything but your scorn, or at least, disapproval.
This first draft will seem pitiably lame — structurally, grammatically and all — but I have no time to copy it.

My patience and endurance are tried

Until last night I have been able to live calmly, reservedly. After having hoped, watched, prayed for word from you for eight days — and having been deeply disappointed each time increasingly, my weakness came again to light, and I was again an object for your help. I cannot tell you the joy your second letter gave me. Knowing that my efforts at what you wanted me to be had effected some little result made me happy, gave me strength. And now — I am putty or clay or jelly fish again — as far as living over and above the annoyances and disagreeable messes here are concerned. And now! This is being the sort of letter I swore I'd not send you — I have hundreds of little pieces of letters, attempts, failures, like this — I have waited, hoping I'd be alone that there would be quiet, that my foggy brain would exert itself, that I might answer all you have asked me. But my body is always tired, and while I live thoughts of you and think you messages while I am working, when I have a tiny moment I cannot raise my hand to write — I can only fall on my bed and pant.

It is almost five now — at four-thirty I began to write to you. Until then I had not ceased work except for luncheon all day. Now, in a few moments I must prepare dinner. Then this will be another addition to my miserable collection of started conglomerations of explanation and lucidity as to my view on the question which I realize is all-important. I want to answer it intelligently, but in this state, and with something about the house constantly crying for attention I wonder when I shall be able to do so.

To continue with my explanation — tonight after I have finished the dishes and the thousand little finishings-up — it will be eight. Then Mom will return from her case. She will talk excitedly about it — she will ask about what has passed during the day; — we will discuss plans for the summer (at present, the Aunts want a cottage at the Lake for themselves and us for the summer); — plans for this fall, then; then Mom, wanting a bit of recreation, will want to play croquet, or cards if it is too dark for croquet. Of course she is hurt if I do not enter enthusiastically into her proposal. When she has had sufficient bridge — more talk — then Fran and Polly come in, for it is eleven or after.

Then follows noise, joking, discussion of a universe of things — during which time I am trying to write to you, or to read a tiny bit, if I am too fatigued to hold a pen and just strong enough to hold a book — All this after a day in which I have done dishes, washed, cooked a great deal, ironed, cleaned, arranged, cleaned Randy's clothes, mended all their weak and worn thru spots.

For the last three days I have been canning strawberries

For the last three days I have been canning strawberries, a tiresome, rather difficult (at least for a novice) procedure. I enjoy doing it — especially because half of all I do is for us next year. Well — and so on and so on. Dad helps, of course, but he isn't well; and I'm an impossible enough housekeeper anyway, without having a man's impractical, usually more-work-than-help interference. Fran's working. Mom has been on cases ever since I returned. I have tried to find some means of earning a little — and my swimming class Friday for an hour at a dollar is all I can procure.

For a long time, I had been saving Monday, the 5th for my petite livre to you. But no — Randy wanted a picnic, and poor Dad hungered for a bit of fishing but couldn't find it in his generous soul to leave me at home while the rest of the family sported, despite my protestations. This was the third or fourth heated, tearful scene about my giving up what to the others seemed pleasures to save money for next Fall. The first few had included Mom — about the movies. I had no desire to go, tried to refuse Mom's persuasive invitation and then impatient query, and Dad's quiet, rather piqued pleas. One particular such grew into a serious nerve-wracking one and was the cause of my misery, and complaint in one of the heretofore unsent manuscripts, which now I'll enclose with other irrelevant bits to enhance my "excuse" —

Dinner must be prepared now —

After Dinner

Thank the wise stars! They found a fourth croquet player — and I have these few moments before the household assembles indoors for the evening festivity. I've had a moment to play things that I'm trying to perfect for you. I am at peace for the time being. But I'll be shattered, I suppose, when any uneasiness strikes me. Absurd the way I sway from one mood to another. I wonder why people brag about being moody? They think it shows variety, versatility of character — something-or-other. But to you it is shallowness, is it not? One's emotion should be inflexible, should it not? It is rather emotional stability to be desired — at least as contact with the world and people is necessary.

I rather liked the quote in Chimes — "For life is, after all, nothing but the capacity to assert a condition of inner equilibrium within the transition of external circumstances" — at least. Of course it is external & rather superficial, hence not so dogmatic as if it were expounded as a swooping generality for all of life.

As though my mad wandering thoughts interested you! I'm thinking on paper — I wonder if I'll send this to you?

Oh! their fourth player has departed and I must fill the gap or cause a rupture in the family.

Friday [in deteriorated handwriting]

I am certainly ill-starred — I must send you this after all — forgive its weakness and unrestraint.

Today — before my swimming class — something went wrong with the showers and I burned my right arm and hand rather severely. It's impossible to write much. Its smarting and burning is most uncomfortable, although it's not serious.

I decided in the night not to send this. Now I shall — perhaps it will help you to know that you are always in my thoughts — that I am trying to live Beauty for you, that I want you, want you —


I'm enclosing some other horrible scraps of what I've written to you — Please write to me, mon Jacques —

I thought you'd like this despite its horribleness before this week-end. Weekends seem interminable without word from you. Two will have passed so, if I do not receive anything tomorrow —

Thank you for all the things you've sent. I've finished the Forsyte Saga. I have much to tell you — and have read Part I of Chimes —

As I told you on one of my several unanswered bits to you I shall write a systematized reply to your business letter — I know its importance but there are things about living that don't affect me at all — so in a way it is not all that matters now — are you angriest about that?

Oh — When will you come?


Please destroy all this letter when you've read it — Please

... this is to be truly happy, capable of controlling life and whatever it brings by offering to Fate a well tempered instrument.

Do you think it right to act even so far as to record subjectively the effects of an emotion while under strain of it — or to allow it to color the conception of a great many relevant things that are likely to appear on the horizon of thought at such a time? Or is it wiser, and, perhaps more generous, to turn all effort to the returning of one's nervous or emotional state to the norm, and to obliterate stimuli for any conception? It cannot be more genuine to do this, tho', for sincerity is never utter unless emotionally, mentally and voluntarily — one is that which the passion of the moment makes him, for to him that moment and its emotional contents are supreme; all else is trivial. Man is, in so disciplining himself as to wait for the heat of anger, ambition, desire, compassion or what not to cool before thinking or acting — controlling this desire, his emotional state, but deadening spontaneity, killing that controlling force of his nature, making himself a wholly cool, disinterested onlooker on the warm living spark of himself, really rationalizing himself according to his own artificially, circumstantially, environmentally-shaped self. He has become a Forsyte — a Forsyte of the Spirit of Forsyteism — He has learned to possess himself — to what end? To be possessed by a great, greedy spirit of Possession. He accepts willingly this master, yet despises him, is rankled, torn by him, incognizantly. There still exist in him fragments, remnants of the purely, truly untouched germs of his nature, the dictates of the spiritum ipsum, which, in conflict with the master, torment him hourly. This is Hell — Happiness is its reverse. To be tuned emotionally, mastered adeptly, thrown gracefully into harmony — this is to be truly happy, capable of controlling life and whatever it brings by offering to Fate a well tempered instrument.

By this time I am successfully, or unsuccessfully, back to normal. An hour ago I lay sobbing on my bed — alone in the house for the first time since I have been home, and at my own disposal for the first time in four days.

Then, being roughly yanked back to superficiality by the ring of the phone and the conversation of an unknown, I fell to thinking, and, having my pen at hand always to write you what I think whenever I have strength and a moment — I began to "talk" to you on this paper, as I have talked on dozens of unsent, unintelligible scraps. Had I written when I was but just sufficiently composed to write, I should have written an impassioned cry, a complaint, a query fraught with outbursts against humankind for its idiosyncrasies and willful misunderstandings. But, then I would have been more able than now to tell you things I have long wanted to. At school it was impossible for me live — I had to subdue all inclination toward speculative thought, or meditation. I'd have gone home the first year a nervous wreck if I hadn't. I can see now why. I can see this inevitable conflict bound to arise in the soul of one instinctively sensitive to beauty, born to what is not beautiful, subjected to turmoil and conflict in others, yet endowed with an inherent pity or love of Earth-born humankind, unable to overcome its inevitable temptations because of a relationship to its weaknesses and strengths as close as blood-ties — without a knowledge, a schooling in the manipulation of these two dangerously incompatible tendencies.

Tonight, while I was miserable — I sobbed, try to be gentle with me — and I wanted you then more than I have wanted you ever before, and I want you now, want you in this reconstruction of my life.

This year has been a revelation in pain, a turning or rather a reincarnation. I do not have the same desires this summer, or the same sympathies. Everything is changed. Yet while I am so deeply desiring your strength of understanding, the assistance of your voice urging me to be quiet and calm, the contact of your being, the sight of you — even while I desire you — I am vaguely uneasy when I think of the shortness of the time in which I must finish the preparation of my mind, my self, my temperament for you. I am unworthy — oh I must study, study much before ever I shall be fitted to help others to live, to live the harmonic, the tenderly reserved life that I must live in example. We must have much, much time together, you and I – first, we must learn to live, with one another. And that is why it matters so little what our living in the world of men is like, how we earn the wherewithal to keep our bodies healthy.

We must have much, much time together, you and I...

We are young, very young yet. The unknown is appealing – one can forget its only momentary uncertainty when one is young, and its “so seldom Great”-ness. One is never utterly devoid of self-confidence, hence nothing seems impossible. I shudder at the sordidness of your pessimistic discouragements – yet before the shudder has ceased, I laugh and rebuild my little castle, temporarily shattered by what you have so graphically printed in the most sordid of colors.



"...but I have no time to copy it." Yes, my dear young readers, there was a time when people drafted letters, then copied them over in final form.

Mom - a private duty nurse

Dad - does not work due to a bone disease.

Younger siblings: Fran and Randy.


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